Riding the road north to Labrador

“It was the best of roads, it was the worst of roads.”

With apologies to Charles Dickens, that’s Quebec’s Rt. 389 — the road from Baie Comeau north to the Labrador border. It’s scenic, remote and twisty, and it’s hazardous.

But after tackling it over the past couple of days, the reward is worth it. Rt. 389 is surprisingly unknown, yet easy to access, and if you live in eastern Canada and own an adventure bike, you should check it out.

False start

I ended up on Rt. 389 as part of my Trans-Labrador Highway trip. We’ve already published the details of my preparation here, but we didn’t mention my disastrous first attempt, on July 5.

That day, I was less than 200 km from home when my WR250R’s radiator started leaking. The fan blades had nicked the rad core.

With coolant spewing out the rad, all over the engine and down my leg, I nursed the Yamaha into a gas station, where I realized the problem wouldn’t be an easy fix. My friend Matt picked me up in my truck and brought me back home, where I got to work finding the solution. [Can’t you take a hint? – Ed.]

As near as I can figure, the rad was bent by the previous owner in a crash, putting it out of spec just enough that it touched the fan when I added the rad guard.

Three days later, I had a welder tack up the holes in the rad, and on July 10, I was on the road again.

The long haul

By 6 PM on the 10th, I was waiting for the Riviere-du-Loup ferry to take me across the St. Lawrence. It had been a long, hard day of flogging the 250 the 500ish km to the ferry, but I could feel tension disappearing as I sat in line. At least I’d made it across the river this time!

Riding into Les Escoumins, where most normal people would look for a hotel, maybe with a nice restaurant and a bar.

Rt. 138, the road along the St. Lawrence north shore from the St. Simeon ferry landing to Les Escoumins, is one of my favourite stretches of pavement, even if the hills were a bit much for the heavily-loaded WR. Mostly a narrow two-laner that winds around lakes and coves, the scenery was a treat, and I rode right through until sundown, loving every minute.

Too cheap to pay for a few hours at a tent site, I instead slung my hammock between two trees at the town’s ferry landing. I fell asleep almost instantly, exhausted from the long day in the saddle.

Not our Zac, though – the cheap bugger. Who needs a warm, dry bed when you can have a hammock over the rocks?
Heading north

I woke Thursday morning to see a whale cruising past my makeshift campsite. Not a bad way to start the day.

The next stretch of 138 is spectacularly boring, all rocks and trees. By lunchtime I was in Baie Comeau, stocking up on essential supplies: gas and squeaky cheese curds. And then, it was time to hit Rt. 389.

I’d heard a lot about Rt. 389 from other riders. Everyone said it was curvy, with beautiful, smooth pavement, and also extremely dangerous, due to truck traffic.

Just what you don’t want to see when you’re drifting around a corner.

They were all correct. A couple of minutes into the road, just as I began to realize how much fun the road was, I came to a left-hand turn to find a logging truck taking up my entire lane. Thankfully, I hit the binders and the Yamahammer slowed down to avoid collision, but from then on, I was extra vigilant.

The danger from trucks wasn’t just from the front. At a construction site, a long line of drivers waved me forward, but once we started rolling again, I ended up with a panel truck tailgating me at high speed. I’d lose the van in the corners, but thanks to the WR’s limited top speed, the truck would catch up to me in the straights. Due to the road’s limited sightlines and soft, narrow shoulders, there was no opportunity to safely pull over and get out of the way, either. On a bigger bike, it wouldn’t have been a problem. On the little bike, I felt like I was remaking the classic Spielberg film Duel.

Eventually, we hit a short passing lane and the truck was gone, leaving me to focus on the beautiful curves all the way to the massive Daniel-Johnson hydro dam and the Manic 5 generating station.

The Daniel-Johnson hydro dam at the Manic 5 generating site is 214 metres tall, and the largest of its type in the world.

Considering how easy it is to get here, I’m surprised more riders don’t come here. You could easily ride as far as Manic 5 (where the gravel section starts) on a sportbike or cruiser, and the corners just keep coming and coming, with very few bumps to spoil the fun. Just watch out for trucks.

After Manic 5, the road turned to gravel. It was in mostly good shape, but constant truck traffic kicked up a lot of dust, which settled into sand in some ruts, causing a few pucker moments until I figured them out.

And then, on the gravel with some cold rain, everything turned to crap.

The other danger was the trucks themselves, again. Coming out of Manic 5, I met a pilot vehicle that motioned me to the side of the road in very strong hand gestures. He was followed by a cavalcade of wide-load trucks carrying heavy machinery to another jobsite. Definitely not what you want to meet while you’re letting the rear end hang out in a high speed corner slide.

So, that’s the key. Ride smart, and the two gravel stretches of Rt. 389 aren’t too bad. Ride fast and dumb, and you’re a long way from help if things go wrong …

The first gravel stretch from Manic 5 is a bit more than 100 km, ending in Relais-Gabriel, an industrial facility with gas and diesel and a small eatery. It’s a gritty, greasy, grimy joint, with almost a post-apocalyptic look. If the locals had Aussie accents, not French, you’d think you were in Mad Max.

At Relais-Gabriel – all hail the Toecutter!

After Relais-Gabriel, there’s another 180 km of pavement, including the stretch through the abandoned town of Gagnon. The buildings are long since removed, but the sidewalks and drains remain. It’s a bizarre sight in the northern wilderness, a ghost town without even any ghosts left.

I slung my hammock here for the night, with a pair of retiree couples from Ontario in camper vans. They left first thing in the morning, nice and warm and dry, shortly after the rain started … sigh.

At Gagnon, before the rain, Zac’s wondering where all the people have gone.

I packed my soggy gear best I could, and slogged the rest of the way north to Labrador City. The second gravel stretch (about 70 km) was mostly pretty good going, but my visor was covered in crud, limiting visibility, and I was wet and cold. Looks like a hotel stay is in the near future. [Well, duh! -Ed.]

Is it worth it?

Even if you aren’t headed to Labrador and you just stop at the Manic 5 dam, you’ll have an epic adventure coming up Rt. 389 on a motorcycle. Just remember: there are plenty of ways to get in trouble up here, but if something bad happens, you’re hours away from help. If you want to ride here, have your brain switched on at all times.

Some lovely, smooth highway at the southern end of 389. Insider fact: Zac’s getting eaten alive here by bugs.

6 thoughts on “Riding the road north to Labrador”

  1. That was a hard trip even in a camper van , hello Zac we met on your trip in the pouring rain in a ghost town in Labrador and we were in touch along the way for a few days , glad to see you made it home .We enjoyed the trip after Labrador alot , and Nfl was beautiful , like you said , well take care . Robert Perigo

  2. As a fellow hammock enthusiast and owner of a WR250R, this trip is awesome. Great post. I need to book some time off work next summer to get there. It looks like you have the Hennessy Explorer Deluxe Asym Zip. I had the same one until I discovered DIY hammocks and made a dual layer hammock from thinner and stronger material. It packs to about half the size and is more comfortable (although the materials were not much cheaper than the commercially built one — never mind the labour).

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